Beware of the fun police

Back in June, the French president celebrated the victory in the changing room of the winning team of the domestic league rugby final by downing a bottle of beer in one go. Seventeen seconds is what it took Emmanuel Macron to empty the bottle, as the players cheered him on.

Beware of the fun police

Promoted by Consumer Choice Center

The controversy it sparked wasn't merely over whether this was a heartfelt moment or a publicity stunt, but instead over the fact that Macron consumed alcohol. "He trivialises situations that encourage drinking", Bernard Basset from Association Addictions France told BFMTV after the fact.

The vilification of alcohol is taking on increasing dimensions, as is the vilification of all the things that are considered "sins" or "vices". Gambling, sugary drinks, smoking or vaping, fatty foods; there's a long list of pleasures people engage in and an even longer one of people who seek to ban them. The people who say that they are concerned about "public health" are increasingly looking like the Temperance movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. Temperance activists also believed that smoking, drinking, and gambling were bad, even though their argument was instead from the standpoint of public morality, not public health. Their fallacy, however, is the same: the assumption that prohibition is a moral good because it protects the individual from him or herself. Where the Temperance lobby sought to bring about prohibition through moral panics, the public health lobby does the same by misrepresenting the facts.

Take the example of vaping. For many decades now, governments around the world have recognised the ill-effects of smoking, and explored different ways to help people quit. Often, it has done so through invasive restrictive policy-making. Smoking has become significantly more expensive through taxation, and because of bans it has virtually disappeared in public indoor settings. Despite a significant decrease in smoking rates, regulators and legislators are trying to squash the holdouts, as 20% of adults in the European Union continue to smoke.

Alternative nicotine delivery devices – such as e-cigarettes or heat-not-burn devices – have not just been proven to be significantly safer than cigarettes but also to be effective smoking cessation tools. Tobacco users are quitting the habit in high numbers because of vaping, and yet there are activist elements that seek the government to treat vaping, the harm reduction tool, in the exact same way it does tobacco. That is not just because they are ignorant of science but because they're not there to reduce harm but to eliminate every available vice. Much like the Temperance movement, or the people who hold on to the idea of keeping cannabis illegal, their unofficial tagline is Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No".

This modern prohibitionism, or neo-prohibitionism, is prolific and influential. For all their talk about Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol, Big Gambling, it appears that those industries hold very little power compared to public health campaigners. The facts speak for themselves: year after year, accessing these simple enjoyments of life becomes more difficult. Countries either make them more expensive and less accessible, ban their advertising or restrict their sales times. Suppose European governments were, in fact, beholden to those big industries. In that case, we'd see a very different landscape – but instead of an episode of Mad Men, we're looking at increasingly puritanical policy-making.

The UK government is now pondering a generation ban for tobacco, meaning everyone born after the 1st of January 2009 would not be legally allowed to acquire any tobacco products. In essence, that means that the UK is implementing prohibition - a policy that has failed and continues to fail consistently. Whether it's alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920s or cigarette prohibition in Bhutan in 2020, banning these products outright boosts the black market. Illicit product and service providers of alcohol, cigarettes, gambling etc. don't care for quality controls or age restrictions and fund other criminal operations with their sales.

The frustrating thing about the debate about prohibition is that its negative consequences are not remotely unknown. We know that alcohol prohibition created the mafia boss Al Capone. We know that perpetrators of international terrorism generate cash flow through illicit tobacco trade. Most importantly, we know that the war on drugs, such as cannabis, was counterproductive and imprisoned millions of non-violent offenders for countless years. Why would we try to follow a model that is objectively ill-advised when we could instead introduce the notion of responsible use, harm reduction, and individual responsibility?

The fun police, the neo-prohibitionists, the nanny staters, whatever we want to call them, have an agenda of making prohibition socially acceptable once again. Much like any police that oversteps its authority, we should stop them.

Bill Wirtz, Senior Policy Analyst at Consumer Choice Center

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